Games and pop music are made for each other.
Music slips past the bouncers, the rubber-stampers of gritty po-faced games, and scurries slyly into the bar, shaking its boo-tay. It brings with it all the people who games have neglected, all the joy that you can’t get from blood and death, all the freedom you gain from never dying, and it is woven by game designers into something more than itself: It’s a place for more than one person, and it’s not just for your hands, it’s for your body, it’s for your feet, it’s for your hips, games are up all night to get lucky, you’re up all night to get lucky, you’re up all night to get lucky, you’re up all night to get lucky, you’re up all night to get lucky.
There was a time when I thought pop music was dead. All through high school and up until I moved to Japan, the land where pop music will never be a crime, I slunk into a little mope about how I felt that people should be disgusted by music-by-committee, should “appreciate” singer/songwriters and their candor, but I was wrong. There is no musical hierarchy like this. Throughout that purgatory I was in some sort of indie-music coma because that’s what adults are supposed to like. They’re supposed to want to wallow in their own bitter Smiths-like depression: To be Cool with a capital C you become all about the “nuance of life” and “timelessness,” “loneliness” and how lyrics intertwine with feeling and oh gosh, Jeff Buckley. When you’re approaching adulthood you’re supposed to embrace the music of being by yourself, but that doesn’t preclude liking anything that’s made with everyone in mind. There’s some odd disinterested lot out there who pretend that we’re in some post-Radiohead era where we all have to snobbishly act like pop is catnip for boneheads, and not ultimately something pumped into clubs because it makes us move together. There’s a reason pop music is love-obsessed, sex-obsessed, stuck on base instincts. It’s because it’s as much our mirror as more personal contemplations. It is still us, writ large, with ugly vibrance, and it makes us move.
As Robert Frost said: “Dancing is a vertical expression of a horizontal desire.”
There’s still something delicately placed, finely tuned, almost manipulative about most big trashy pop beats. There’s a time, isn’t there, when you swagger into a place where the bass is so loud and thrilling and magnetising that everyone forgets that they were halfway through a sentence and are drawn, hypnotised, into the lights. There are moments where you look over and smile because the sweaty limbs you are seeing could be completely mistaken for your own.
Games have dragged that right into the living room. Their biggest triumph is that just like pop music they invite people to connect with each other, more often now than ever in person, in diverse spaces across the cultural landscape. Soldering music, a prêt-à-porter international language, right into the electronic veins of a computer so that it can converse with us is new, exciting, interesting. Though the era of Rock Band and Guitar Hero may be faltering due to the rarity of the peripherals, Singstar will never die as long as people want to sing and you can still plug a USB mic into your platform of choice. Pop music lives, and games owe it a living.
People will always want to dance together. You just have to give them a safe space where it’s okay to do so.
1. THE TRACK
There’s a bit in Saints Row IV that made me actually squeal with delight. Squeal. My character is escaping a futuristic neon structure in a spaceship, she asks if the radio works, and flips the station. Haddaway’s “What Is Love” comes on. I shoot lasers to the beat. My character exclaims, “THIS IS MY JAM!”
It’s at this moment I realise that we tend to use popular music in ads on TV for games like Call of Duty, but less often in games themselves. This could be for many reasons, including that music is so expensive (and legally complex) to license, and perhaps sometimes because the record labels think that the music won’t be honored by a medium so juvenile or violent. Or perhaps (and I suspect this most of all) big commercial games are often conceived by designers who have done nothing but consume and cannibalize their own medium for years without considering that their player base might respond to other less obvious cultural stimuli than harking to ’80s hypermasculine movie aesthetics.
But let’s not leave ’80s hypermasculine movie culture just yet: We can learn something from the time it used pop music to help appear humanoid. Some of the most humanizing moments of the notoriously violent GTA games, for example, are the ones where you’re racing down a highway to the beats of a familiar tune. When FLASH FM throws up “Billie Jean” in Vice City you feel like you know the world you’re inhabiting. You feel like everything is under control. Like you’re invincible. It does more for Tommy Vercetti than most of the dialogue ever does. Tommy knows “Billie Jean,” you think. Tommy’d dance to this. He’s a smug self-serving git but at least “Billie Jean” would make him tap his foot. Music for the ME generation.
In similar neon vein, hypermasculine violence simulator Hotline Miami, the indie triumph of 2012, employed independent artists like M.O.O.N and Peturbator to set a rhythm to the bloody top-down fucking-up of brodudes, and the reason you felt the violence was okay in your little game bubble was because the music set the beat, the groove, the movement. It was like a dancefloor, and your assassin was some awful moonwalking face-smasher. Tapping ‘R’ to restart was a sort of comforting ritual, absorbed into your body memory, absorbed by the beat. The noise of your tap: It was the noise of Hydrogen knocking on your eardrums. A stray bug prevented some players from hearing the music: They reported it was empty play without the rhythms of the night. It was disturbingly violent without the music. It was gross, unhappy. It was sour, bare, without the music to egg them on, to make them feel it was natural to kill.
But take music away from violence, and make it a playground for people there in the room with you, and you find a new way to know them. Die Gute Fabrik’s most famous export is Johann Sebastian Joust, a game played with Playstation Move controllers to the sound of selections from J.S. Bach’s ??Brandenburg Concertos. The aim is to be the last of up to seven players with a lit up motion-sensitive controller. When the music plays slowly, the controllers are highly sensitive to jostling, and when the music speeds up they are less sensitive, allowing for more ways to approach, or perhaps, launch yourself at other players to knock out their light. It’s a game that invites improvisation, an appreciation for personal space and how personal space is negotiated, and to watch it being played is like watching an elaborate dance or, sometimes even, a wolf pack turn on itself. The music conducts the bodies, the bodies are uncertain chess pieces. But that’s despite the refined music of Bach: Bach is not a trash pop guy. You play some Bach alone and there aren’t many people clamoring for the dancefloor. No. You need Daft Punk for that.
And then you move, no matter where in the room you are. The first time I heard this song I hated it. I thought it was really dull. I thought it was repetitive compared to the music Daft Punk made in the past. But this song: This song is purely for dancing. It makes sense when you see other people dance to it. What Just Dance did here is have their dancers make it hard for you not to dance to it.
Paste sent me to Ubisoft in Paris to see Just Dance 2014. Just Dance is a game franchise in which you dance along with an eye-searingly fluorescent mirror image on screen as best you can, to some pretty great pop tracks. Initially released on the Wii to work with the Wii remote, but now releasing on Wii, Wi iU, PS3 / PS4 (with Move), and Xbox 360 and Xbox One (with Kinect), it will score you at the end of the track, if a little forgivingly. If I’d even remotely hated pop music this game would have been a hard sell: Dancing with absolute strangers is intimidating at the best of times. But if you look at that video and don’t want to dance with me I don’t really care. Because if you present me with a track like that, something that is made for feet to move to, and provide me with a space in which to do it, it’s impossible, just impossible for me not to respond to the moves on the screen. There must be people out there who have the same problem. I certainly know people who can’t not sing to specific songs. It seems natural to want to dance to that track.
That these songs are included in the (huge) tracklist is a reflection of the way our pop landscape looks these days. Here’s the thing about pop music: It’s fraught with problematic sexual politics, because it reflects the really quite damaging way mainstream society sees sex. In so many ways, the lyrics, and particularly the videos, are staged rape culture operas where, and I guess “Blurred Lines” and “Fine China” are the exemplars here, women’s bodies are treated like possessions, objects, reduced to parts where often the women are given no voice or agency. In part this is because The Club is where the music’s voyeuristic attitudes come from and where they are destined to go. And yet if you spoke to anyone whose job it is to counsel rape survivors of any gender on campus these days, you’d be pressed to find someone who thought it was a good idea to have “I know you want it” as a chorus to any anthem of the summer. In fact, my own alma mater has just banned “Blurred Lines” from campus. But though “Blurred Lines” has recently caught the headlines for its objectification of women (particularly in the official video), it’s part of a plethora of songs that have problematic undertones, slimy come-ons, sexism, all sorts of terrible attitudes embedded in them intended to shock or legitimize. The problem isn’t with one song in particular, but with how our whole culture expects people to act towards each other. “I Kissed A Girl” by Katy Perry, for example, has an undertone that suggests that gay people don’t even exist at all, and if they do, “it’s not what good girls do, not how they should behave”. Though I don’t think anyone could fault teen experimentation, what is unsettling is that the heteronormative fetishising of gay women is (not) coincidentally what happens through the lens of mainstream pornography. It’s sort of unhealthy that we consume this sort of culture. And then there’s all Chris Brown’s frankly horrible attitudes towards women which I don’t have space to discuss. Pop music is made and distributed by some truly irresponsible pricks.
It’s a difficult spot then, that a game centered around popular music, that wants to be for everyone, finds itself in. The minefield landscape’s left up to Nicki Minaj to do most of the problem-dodging and even she has her moments. The music itself may be fine tuned for a dancing beat, but couple it with lyrics that are about hurting someone or smashing an ass in half or what have you (thank you Robin, you are a nice man) you might make some of your audience feel a bit nauseous. How do you make this game with the popular tracks in it that have people buy it, and also try to make it not outwardly hostile to a huge section of your audience?